You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Closeness’

An ethically indefensible choice mars Russian first-timer Kantemir Balagov’s otherwise impressively tough-minded debut.

Darya Zhovner, Olga Dragunova, Artem Tsypin, Nazir Zhukov, Veniamin Kats. (Russian and Kabardian dialogue)

It’s relatively rare that the business of film reviewing confronts us with a genuine ethical dilemma. But Kantemir Balagov’s debut feature, which played in the Cannes Un Certain Regard sidebar and is, even without its most controversial segment, a demanding, difficult watch, presents an unavoidable one. At the film’s approximate midpoint, occasioning a flurry of walkouts during its Cannes press screening, a group of characters are shown watching a scratchy and degraded VHS tape on which plays footage of anti-Semitic Islamist violence and murder. Fuzzy and diffuse as it is, the sequence goes on for a long time, and even though the film is set in 1998, the images it presents are realistically rendered, a triumphalist, hate-filled aesthetic made familiar by recent phenomena: Islamic State recruitment videos, terrorist propaganda, and hostage executions. The very major issue is, it’s not just “realistic”; according to the press notes, it’s real.

“Closeness” is a tough-minded, rigorously composed, quite brilliantly acted story of the challenges of everyday religious prejudice and ethnic divides in the bleak heart of Russia’s North Caucasus, and in many ways Balagov’s uncompromising but stylized social realism rewards as much as it punishes. But in including this real video — essentially a snuff movie — within a fiction narrative and not announcing it as such, a line is crossed.

It’s not as though Balagov doesn’t create the perfect opportunity to warn the viewer: In a somewhat unnecessary flourish the film is “signed” by the director, featuring brief titles at the beginning and the end in which he introduces himself as a native of Nalchik, the town depicted, and tells us that the narrative is based on the true story of a kidnapping that occurred there in the late 1990s. Certainly there is in general a fraught and combative relationship with the truth (Alexander Sokurov’s producer’s credit seems oddly appropriate in this regard): In Balagov’s retelling, a grimy little local news story becomes a tale of love across the barricades, in which duty to family and tribe is weighed against the desires of the individual heart. But this is not “Romeo and Juliet,” and there is precious little pining beneath balconies.

Unfolding in boxily appropriate 4:3 format, which forces subjects into close proximity to fit in the frame, it starts with a celebration: A Jewish family that has relatively recently settled in Nalchik celebrates the engagement of the son David (Venjamin Katz) to a local Jewish girl. The tone is merry, but one family member seems more ambivalent. Ilana (extraordinary first-timer Darya Zhovner), David’s tomboy sister who works alongside their mechanic father, Avi (Artem Tsypin), is curiously removed from the event and uncomfortably feminized in a dress insisted on by her stern mother, Adina (Olga Dragunova). Later, she changes back into her overalls and sneaks out to meet her burly lover Zalim (Nazir Zhukov), who is of Kabardian background, a local ethnicity that has its own language and customs. Ilana and Zalim’s relationship has earned Ilana’s mother’s deepest disapproval, and Ilana’s Jewishness is a secret from Zalim’s friends. They meet clandestinely.

The family’s general stability is abruptly overturned, however, when David and his fiancee are kidnapped and a ruinous ransom is issued. Even the sale of Avi’s workshop will not raise the amount necessary, and while the Jewish community rally round, the decision is made that most of their charity must go to secure the return of the fiancee. Increasingly desperate, Ilana’s parents make a deal whereby a local Jewish family will supply the rest of the ransom if Ilana marries their son. But Ilana’s willful, independent heart is set on Zalim, despite his occasional brutality.

The plot is perhaps overly schematic, but the filmmaking compensates, with DP Artem Yemelyanov’s inventive, often subjectively woozy camerawork particularly valuable in tying us in to Ilana’s perspective. Zhovner is a real discovery: The “closeness” of the title also tells in how close-up-heavy the photography is, but even with nowhere to hide, she makes Ilana a riveting, complex, frequently unlikable but very real character, whom we watch in unblinking shots as druggedness or drunkenness or anger or self-pity suffuses the strong-jawed beauty of her face.

So the grittily inspired craft darkly illuminates a story whose value lies in how authentically it mines the specificity of its arcane setting. But can any of that excuse the lapse in judgment that is the inclusion of that video, rather than a restaged or offscreen version of it? This is not a snowflake’s plea for a trigger warning: People dying for real on-screen is one of the most basic taboos we have, and it is not for anyone else to make the decision as to whether you are comfortable breaking it. Apparently, the tape was one that Balagov and his friends found as teenagers, and it was the first time, per the press notes, that the director was “confronted with death, that I saw someone die slowly.” So its inclusion is part of Balagov’s authorial intent to insert his own experiences into his film, but the disingenuous way he does it makes it feel like a betrayal.


Film Review: ‘Closeness’

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 24, 2017. Running time: 118 MIN. Original title: “Tesnota.”

Production: (Russia) An ARP and Wild Bunch presentation of an Example of Intonation, Alexander Sokurov’s Fund and LenFilm Production. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Berlin.) Producers: Nikolay Yankin, Edward Pichugin, Alexander Sokurov.

Crew: Director, editor: Kantemir Balagov. Screenplay: Balagov, Anton Yarush. Camera (color, 4:3): Artem Yemelyanov.

With: Darya Zhovner, Olga Dragunova, Artem Tsypin, Nazir Zhukov, Veniamin Kats. (Russian and Kabardian dialogue)

More Film

  • Cannes The Square Winner

    SF Studios Acquires Nordic Rights to Ruben Östlund’s 'Triangle of Sadness'

    SF Studios has acquired the Nordic distribution rights to Ruben Östlund’s “Triangle of Sadness,” the Swedish filmmaker’s follow up to the Palme d’Or winning “The Swquare.” A contemporary satire taking place in the world of fashion, “Triangle of Sadness” is set on a luxury yacht and ends up on a deserted island where hierarchies are [...]

  • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi displays

    Narendra Modi Wins New Mandate in Indian Election and Divides the Film Industry

    India has returned the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance coalition to power for a second term, with a huge mandate. In doing so, it polarized the film industry. The NDA won 351 seats out of a total of 542. The biggest democratic exercise in the world, more than 600 million Indians voted across six weeks. [...]

  • Director Dean DeBlois and online game

    'Dragon' Director Dean DeBlois and PUBG's CH Kim to Keynote 2019 VIEW Conference

    Dean DeBlois, director and executive producer of DreamWorks Animation’s “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” and PUBG Corporation CEO CH Kim are the first keynote speakers announced for the 2019 VIEW Conference in Turin, Italy, in October. Since it began 12 years ago, VIEW, which stands for Virtual Interactive Emerging World, has continually [...]

  • 'The Cordillera of Dreams' Review: Poetic

    Cannes Film Review: 'The Cordillera of Dreams'

    Rounding out his sublimely meditative, deeply personal documentary-essay trilogy on time, memory and the relationship of Chile’s breathtaking landscapes to its troubled human history, Patricio Guzmán delivers “The Cordillera of Dreams,” a haunting and allusive exploration of the cultural impact of the country’s most spectacular geological feature: its snowcapped mountain spine. Coming after the exploration [...]

  • Ari Emanuel Endeavor

    Endeavor IPO Filing Offers Details of Company's Financials, Leadership Pay Packages

    Endeavor’s IPO filing Thursday offers a hard look at the company’s financial performance during the past three years during a period of rapid growth for the company that’s home to UFC, WME, Professional Bull Riders and a clutch of other assets. Endeavor is generating solid free cash flow from operations and healthy adjusted earnings for [...]

  • Inside amfAR's Cannes Gala

    Inside amfAR's Cannes Gala: Mariah Carey, Kendall Jenner and Tiffany Trump

    Kendall Jenner caused a commotion when she arrived. Tiffany Trump went unrecognized until a member of the press pointed her out as she made her way down the carpet. And Mariah Carey flew in to perform a couple of songs. Welcome to this year’s AmfAR Gala Cannes, the AIDS organization’s annual — and largest — [...]

  • 'Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo' Review: Abdellatif

    Cannes Film Review: 'Mektoub, My Love: Intermezzo'

    A simple but somehow atypical shot opens Abdellatif Kechiche’s new film: a serene closeup of a young woman’s face, as seen through the camera lens of Amir, a budding photographer still finding his perspective. Her expression is ambiguously tranquil, her long hair lightly rustled by a humid breeze, all softly lit by a sinking afternoon [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content